Posts Tagged ‘Ben Rhodes’

Will Obama and EU countries send lethal arms to help Kiev in Russian-Ukrainian war?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015



(1) Carsten Luther (Kommentar), “UKRAINE: Manchmal helfen nur Waffen; Militärisch ist der Krieg in der Ukraine nicht zu lösen. Und doch könnten gerade amerikanische Waffenlieferungen an Kiew die Diplomatie wieder stärken,” Die Zeit, 2. Februar 2015 (19:10 Uhr).

(2) David J. Kramer,”Six Ways to Help Ukraine Resist Russia’s Latest Invasion,” Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2015 (6:15 p.m. ET).

Barack Obama has been reported as “considering” whether to send “defensive” lethal arms to help Kiev in the Russian-Ukrainian war, in which the Ukraine is badly outgunned by the regular Russian troops inside the Ukraine.

At the same time, the irregulars and “separatists” they helped organize and alongside whom they are now fighting have just received new shipments of weapons and weapons systems from Russia, across the wide-open border between Russia and the Donbas.

Angela Merkel, under the sway of her pacifist SPD foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has repeatedly stated she is against sending weapons to Kiev.

Until she fires Steinmeier, which she needs to do if she is ever going to be directly in charge of German foreign policy, this position is most unlikely to change.

As they did in Syria, Germany and other countries in the West proclaim that the conflict in the Ukraine cannot be solved by military means. Only a political settlement can lead to peace, they assert.

They ignore the fact that the conflict was caused by Russia invading the Ukraine, by military means, and that the obvious solution is for it to withdraw its military forces and comply with the terms of the Minsk Protocol which it signed on September 5, 2014. For starters.

Meanwhile, the most powerful army in Europe, that of the Russian Federation, continues its military aggression against the Ukraine, which has now cost over 5,400 lives in the Donbas alone since April.

As the West declares there can be no military solution to the conflict in the Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Russia are shaping facts on the ground every day as they produce their own military solution to the conflict.

Look at the map of Europe and how it has changed since Putin launched his war of aggression against the Ukraine in February, 2014, beginning with the conquest and subsequent purported “annexation” of the Crimea.

In the U.S., Obama is always “considering” something, and the media take and repeat the narratives and explanations the White House feeds them. When Ben Rhodes, the president’s “strategic communications” chief is quoted in a news article, he is channeling Obama, and preparing the public for one more decision by Obama to do nothing.

Anyone who followed the endless press accounts of how Obama was “considering” sending arms to the rebels in Syria, or had “decided” to send arms to the rebels in Syria, all of which came to nothing, is familiar with Obama’s modus operandi of “considering” military options, and then doing nothing.

The one recent exception has been the use of air power against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  This was the least amount of force required to avoid catastrophe.  To date, however, it has failed to reverse the ideological momentum of ISIS,  or to reduce the territory under their control.  At the moment, they are mounting a concerted attack on Kirkuk, in Iraq.

Doing nothing, or doing the least he possibly can to avoid immediate disaster, has been Obama’s pattern ever since he acceded, in 2009, to the demands of his military in ordering the “surge” in Afghanistan.

It is almost as if he has resolved never to follow their advice again.

He is, after all, the American prsident who, contrary to the advice of his military leaders, “ended” the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bottom line: Don’t expect Obama to send any significant quantity of arms to Kiev, though he may speak as if he might in order to deflect pressures on him, now coming from a wide array of former national security officials and many others, to send “lethal” arms to Kiev in a quantity and in a manner which might actually  change the course of events.

The U.S. shipment of “lethal” arms to Kiev is not likely to happen, though it could.  In Europe and America, the pacifists and appeasers of Putin and Russia still appear to be firmly in control.

The Trenchant Observer

Obama’s “intellectual” approach and continuing indecision on no-fly zone and arms in Syria

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

For background, see The Trenchant Observer, “Obama’s “intellectual” decision-making style and the covert supply of arms to the Free Syrian Army,” June 17, 2013.

On June 13, the White House announced, through the person of Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes, that the U.S. had decided to send arms to the rebels in Syria. See:

“Text of White House Statement on Chemical Weapons in Syria,” (statement issued by the White House in the name of Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security adviser), New York Times, June 13, 2013.

Peter Baker, “Heavy Pressure Led to Decision by Obama on Syrian Arms,” New York Times, June 14, 2013.

Jennifer Rubin, “Syria: A delinquent commander in chief,” Washington Post, June 16, 2013 (12:50 p.m.).

New evidence of President Obama’s “intellectual” decision-making style is reported by Howard Lafranchi of the Christian Science Monitor, in the following article:

Howard LaFranchi, ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting adds pressure: What is US ready to do? Other countries and the Syrian rebels are awaiting specifics about new US aid, but President Obama is still weighing what steps to take and how far to go, reflecting continuing deep divisions across the administration,” Christian Science Monitor, June 21, 2013.

LaFranchi quotes Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, as saying the previous Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation”, “We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past. We’re not going to do it here.” This is a mind-boggling statement, in view of the fact that Obama has been “not rushing to war” in Syria for the last two and a half years.

La Franchi continues,

(P)art of the explanation for the administration’s lack of clarity on what Obama’s decision portends for Syria appears to be the ongoing divisions in the administration over just what the president should decide in terms of lethal assistance.

At a White House meeting last week on US “options” in Syria, the idea of a no-fly zone, along with the air-strikes that would be required to take out at least some of Assad’s air defenses to establish havens, was debated at length, administration officials say, but no decisions were made.

Kerry called for immediate airstrikes, arguing that the US should underscore the president’s veto on the use of chemical weapons by disabling the airfields that the Assad regime apparently used to launch chemical attacks. As a senator, Kerry supported military action against Assad.

But Kerry’s proposal was opposed at the meeting by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued that launching even limited airstrikes would be a complex operation and would probably entail deeper air involvement to disable Assad’s air defenses, administration officials say.

White House reluctance to go even further and establish a no-fly zone was made clear by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who said in explaining the president’s decision to arm the rebels: “People need to understand that not only are there huge costs associated with the no-fly zone, not only would it be difficult to implement, but the notion that you can solve the very deeply rooted challenges on the ground in Syria from the air are not immediately apparent” (sic).

What is extraordinary about the above account is that you have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (“We can’t do it”) Gen. Martin Dempsey, taking a political position in deference to the commander-in-chief, while Rhodes, a 36 year-old speech writer (and brother of the President of CBS News) who has become a close adviser to Obama on foreign policy, heads the opposition of the “the Obamians” to the course of action energetically supported by the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry. Moreover, with what we have to assume was Obama’s approval, he says so publicly!

As we have written here. perhaps the most important foreign policy issue Obama faces in his second term is whether he will follow the foreign policy advice of his secretary of state, John Kerry, or that of Ben Rhodes and the other Obamians forming a protective wall around the president.


“John Kerry, Barack Obama, and the future of U.S. foreign policy,” The Trenchant Observer, April 9, 2013; and

“Obama’s Handlers: Ben Rhodes,” The Trenchant Observer, April 5, 2013.

In the latter article, we noted,

With John Kerry, an experienced foreign policy expert, as Secretary of State, one of the questions facing President Obama in his second term is whether he will continue his emphasis on making speeches instead of foreign policy, or rather will revert to the more traditional form of foreign-policy making based on diplomatic reporting from U.S. diplomats around the world on the scene, flowing up through the bureaucracy to the Secretary of State, and from the Secretary of State to the President. To be sure, the bureaucracy must be working well for the latter option to be attractive.

Both of course, always occur. The question is which has priority, and which first shapes the president’s thinking on what is going on in the world and what the realistic options available to the country in formulating foreign policy and making foreign policy decisions actually are. Moreover, good foreign policy tends to be based on the development of good strategy, which is more likely to come from foreign policy experts with field experience under their belts than from speechwriters.

Which come first in the president’s mind, making speeches, or making foreign policy and foreign policy decisions?

What attention does he give to the development and implementation of foreign policy strategy, rather than merely responding to the pressures and circumstances of the moment?

Who is going to lead the foreign policy of the United States, John Kerry or Ben Rhodes? (emphasis added)

The policy incoherence and lack of strong leadership with our allies reflects this underlying struggle between the president’s White House advisers and his secretary of state. McDonough’s statement that the White House is not going to let itself be pressured into “rushing into war” demonstrates how high in the clouds and how removed from realities on the ground Obama and his White House advisers really are.

This is still “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight” in charge at the White House. The fact that the president doesn’t decide an issue like the no-fly zone, but rather signals his inclination to the Secretary of State by having Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes publicly channel his thoughts, is simply appalling–in itself powerful evidence of Obama’s incompetence as a foreign policy leader.

At the “Friends of Syria” meeting held in Qatar, the U.S. and all but two of the 11 members of the group reportedly agreed to provide military support and arms to the Syrian rebels. See

Yara Bayoumy, “Friends of Syria agree to supply urgent rebel aid, The Daily Star (Beirut), June 22, 2013 (updated 8:57 p.m.)

“Qatar: Friends of Syria agree on ‘secret’ measures to arm rebels,” Al-Arabiya (Saudi Arabia), June 22, 2013 (updated KSA 19:48 – GMT 16:48).

However, with Obama unwilling to step forward and publicly lead–apparently believing, as covert commander-in-chief. that if he doesn’t personally say the U.S. is furnishing arms to the rebels, those actions remain invisible to international law–it is hard to see how the supply of arms can be effectively organized or how England and France are going to succeed in getting the European Union to fully support the shipment of arms to Syria.

It is all too intellectual and too sophisticated to work. And so long as Obama maintains the fig leaf that the U.S. supply of arms to Syria is “covert” and therefore the U.S. is not accountable under international law for these unacknowledged actions, it is likely to be as ineffective and disastrous as the last two years of U.S. policy toward Syria.

The president should stop and think, with the assistance of people from outside the White House, whether it really seems credible that the supply of arms to rebels in Syria can remain “secret” with 11 countries in the know, nine of them acting as partners, and Ben Rhodes shouting from the rooftops that the U.S. has decided to supply arms to the insurgents.

This is beyond incredible. It’s pathetic.

What is needed is a clear and public statement by President Obama that the United States and its allies are providing assistance to the insurgents in Syria, and may indeed undertake direct military action if necessary, in order to bring to a halt the continuing commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

That statement should be accompanied by a legal opinion from the Office of the Legal Adviser in the Department of State which explains why, under the extraordinary circumstances in Syria, humanitarian intervention to halt the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Syrian regime is justified under modern international law, as it exists today, in 2013.

In Syria, half measures will not work, and the job cannot be done within an intellectual bubble of purportedly covert activity.

The Trenchant Observer

Syrian Options: The White House’s sophomoric understanding of International Law

Friday, June 14th, 2013

News reports suggest that President Obama has decided to provide arms to the insurgents in Syria, but the exact nature of the arms and possible other actions involving the use of military force remain under consideration.


Mark Mazzetti, Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler, “U.S. Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to Syrian Rebels,” New York Times, June 13, 2013.

Karen DeYoung and Anne Gearan, “U.S., citing use of chemical weapons by Syria, to provide direct military support to rebels, Washington Post, June 14, 2013 (01:17 AM EDT).

DeYoung and Gearan report at length on statements from Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s foreign policy spokesman and aide. They then explain that according to “unnamed” administration officials,

The (arms) shipments, to begin in a matter of weeks, will be undertaken by the CIA. The agency has been the primary U.S. government interlocutor with the opposition’s Supreme Military Council, led by Gen. Salim Idriss. Such covert action requires a signed presidential finding.

That method avoids what the administration previously has said are legal restraints on supplying arms for attacks against another government without approval by an international body such as the United Nations, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about intelligence matters.

The appalling degree of ignorance of international law found in the White House is revealed by the “explanation” contained in the second paragraph quoted above, which asserts the U.S. has to send the arms secretly (while shouting from the rooftops that it is doing so!) through the CIA to avoid “legal restraints on supplying arms for attacks against another government without approval by an international body such as the United Nations…”

They don’t grasp the legal analysis. They don’t even understand that following their own line of reasoning, it is the Security Council alone which, acting under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, can authorize “enforcement action” to implement its resolutions, allowing actions that might not otherwise be permitted, as occurred in the case of Libya.

The White House is saying, in effect, that an action doesn’t violate international law if it is not acknowledged. The sophomoric assertion that if the supply of weapons is done covertly, it doesn’t violate international law, is simply appalling.

This is wholly specious reasoning, because it is the action that violates international law, not whether it is secret or not, which anyone who remembers Nicaragua’s case in the World Court might be able to point out to the president.  The domestic analogy would be to assert that a crime is not committed if it is done in secret.

More to the point, the reading of international law in this statement is like the reading by a first-year law student of some statute, who then immediately advises a client that he or she can’t do something he or she wants to do (however important the business objective), without thoroughly reasearching the different legal arguments that might support the action the client wants to take.

Indeed, that is where Obama is very much like a first-year law student, because he has never really practiced law in the way an experienced attorney has.

In fact, there are strong arguments that can be made to support military intervention in Syria in order to bring to a halt the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It would require some effort on the part of the State Department’s lawyers, who are the principal people in the government who have a deeper appreciation of what international law is all about and how it works, to fully develop those arguments.

Coincidentally, the nominee to be the new State Department Legal Adviser, Avril D. Haines, has just been stolen by John Brennan to become the Deputy Director of the CIA. Consequently, the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, where the international legal expertise resides, is currently in transition. The previous Legal Adviser, Harold H. Koh, has returned to Yale Law School from where he came.

We shall return to this issue of covert operations as we explore the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention to bring to a halt the wanton commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Syrian government.  If such intervention is legal, it is irrelevant whether it is covert or not.  If it is illegal, on the other hand, secrecy does not prevent the United States from incurring state responsibility for its actions.

The covert route is the lazy person’s route, because you don’t have to think through the international law issues and implications. However, we need to think through those implications and present a strong legal justification for our actions, if they are to be accepted as legitimate by the other nations in the region and by the world.

The Trenchant Observer

John Kerry, Barack Obama, and the future of U.S. foreign policy

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

The most decisive foreign policy dynamic at the moment is the developing relationship between John Kerry and Barack Obama. Kerry needs to be careful not to travel too much, so he can be in Washington, where he should be building a strong team at the State Department, and strong working relationships with other foreign policy principals, including Chuck Hagel at Defense and John Brennan at the CIA. He also needs to establish good working relations with the White House foreign policy team headed by NSC Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy Ben Rhodes.

Nothing is more critical to the future foreign policy of the U.S. than Kerry’s building strong working relationships with these individuals, and in particular with the president. Kerry brings to the table considerable strengths in precisely those areas where the president is weakest: an understanding of diplomatic history, a grasp of international law and its usefulness in achieving U.S. objectives, a deep appreciation of the importance of foreign assistance, and a good sense of the constructive role Congress can play, including the critical function of the Senate in ratifying treaties.

The key question is whether Obama will delegate significant pieces of foreign policy making to the Secretary of State, or rather view him simply as an adjunct of his centralized White House foreign policy operation. Will he listen carefully to Kerry and take his suggestions into account, e.g. prior to a speech on Israel, or just have Ben Rhodes go and write an eloquent document to be read?

If he is to succeed as Secretary of State, Kerry must now place his primary attention on developing a full and flexible relationship with the president, through regular meetings and establishing easy access to the Oval Office. This argues for limiting travel during his first year.

For an optimal relationship to be forged, Obama too will need to make a major effort to empower his secretary of state with lead responsibility in a number of key areas, and to leave him with enough space to take the lead in areas Kerry himself deems to be priorities.

Whether this can be achieved is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the president’s last chance to recover from the diastrous foreign policy of his first term, and to set the nation on a more positive and promising couse, depends on his and John Kerry’s ability to forge a close and collaborative working relationship, with John Kerry taking the lead on foreign policy issues.

The Trenchant Observer

President Obama’s handlers: Ben Rhodes

Friday, April 5th, 2013

(developing story)

To those who complain that President Barack Obama doesn’t make foreign policy but instead makes speeches, the following article on one of Obama’s key foreign policy handlers is of particular interest:

See Mark Lander, “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice,” New York Times, March 15, 2013.

Other Obama foreign policy handlers include Tom Donilon, The National Security Advisor.

See The Trenchant Observer, “Obama’s foreign policy juggernaut, including Tom Donilon, and the risks of hubris (updated), January 27, 2012.

With John Kerry, an experienced foreign policy expert, as Secretary of State, one of the questions facing President Obama in his second term is whether he will continue his emphasis on making speeches instead of foreign policy, or rather will revert to the more traditional form of foreign-policy making based on diplomatic reporting from U.S. diplomats around the world on the scene, flowing up through the bureaucracy to the Secretary of State, and from the Secretary of State to the President.  To be sure, the bureaucracy must be working well for the latter option to be attractive. 

Both of course, always occur. The question is which has priority, and which first shapes the president’s thinking on what is going on in the world and what the realistic options available to the country in formulating foreign policy and making foreign policy decisions actually are.  Moreover, good foreign policy tends to be based on the development of good strategy, which is more likely to come from foreign policy experts with field experience under their belts than from speechwriters.

Which come first in the president’s mind, making speeches, or making foreign policy and foreign policy decisions? 

What attention does he give to the development and implementation of foreign policy strategy, rather than merely responding to the pressures and circumstances of the moment?

Who is going to lead the foreign policy of the United States, John Kerry or Ben Rhodes?

The Trenchant Observer

Obama-Putin meeting at G-20 in Mexico (video of joint press conference and transcript of related news conference)—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #55 (June 19)

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Updated September 9, 2012

Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin held a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Baja California, Mexico. A video of the joint press conference (with consecutive interpretation) which they held afterwards is found on YouTube here. The White House video is found here. A transcript of the joint press conference is found here.

The transcript of a separate news conference in which Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Advisor to the President for Strategic Communications), Lael Brainard (Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs), and Mike McFaul (U.S. Ambassador to Russia) participated is found here.  The latter makes for interesting reading.

There wasn’t much evidence of substantive agreement on Syria at the meeting, but it sounds like the two leaders had a chance to have a full discussion of how each of them sees the Syria question, within the framework of what Rhodes and McFaul see as a broad U.S.-Russian relationship that is moving in a positive direction.

A number of questions from journalists focused on the body language between the two presidents during their joint news conference, including the fact that they were not looking at each other that much.

The Observer would make two observations. First, after what was undoubtedly a very intense conversation of two hours’s duration, both leaders appeared a bit tense and somewhat tired.

Second, the fact they weren’t in eye contact that much may be partly the result of the fact that they were speaking to each other through interpreters, using consecutive interpretation. In these situations, there is a natural tendency to look at the interpreter as if one were speaking to him, which in a sense is true. (Obama did this, Putin did not.) Only the most skilled of diplomats and others accustomed to using interpreters have mastered the skill of looking at their interlocutor while speaking, and while listening as the other person or his interpreter speaks.

Obama doesn’t seem to have mastered this skill.  He could work on it, and  probably improve his communication with foreign leaders if he makes significant progress.

Putin looked at Obama when he spoke, but without staring.  Putin knows English. Obama was fixing his gaze quite intently on Putin as the latter spoke.  When Obama spoke, he spoke to the interpreter or looked in front of himself, not at Putin.  This produced something of a disconnect with Putin.  There may have been some important cultural differences in the nature of eye contact at play.

Also, Obama gave Putin a friendly little pat on the back as they said goodbye.  This is the president’s style.  How Putin reacted, if at all, is unknown.

It’s difficult to read, but it is also possible that Obama was a bit angry during the course of the press conference.

Still, their body language did not appear to be overtly hostile. At the end of the meeting, you can see a flash of a genuine smile from Putin as they shake hands and discuss future bilateral summits.

UPDATE (September 9, 2012)

For a more expert opinion on Obama’s and Putin’s body language in the press conference, see Dr. G. Jack Brown, “Body Language Success– Nonverbal Communication Analysis # 1889: Vladimir Putin & Barack Obama at the G-20,” June 18, 2012.

Dr. Brown misses the point about the use of interpreters affecting the eye contact of Obama with Putin, presumably due to less experience, but he accurately analyzes the meaning and impact of Obama’s characteristic pat on the arm or back.

See also Jeff Tompson, “Beyond Words–The science and fun of nonverbal communication: Presidents Obama & Putin: Body Language Recap; Lots of nonverbal communication provided by each to decode,” Psychology Today, June 18, 2012.

With repect to progress on the substance of the Syria question, not much was to be seen at their joint press conference or to be read in the transcript of the press conference Rhodes and McFaul led afterwards.

But at least they talked, and listened to each other, and agreed to keep talking. Given Obama’s prior decisions not to consider military intervention in Syria, this was perhaps all that could be reasonably expected at this meeting. In this sense, a non-confrontational meeting may be counted as a success, and may have helped to lay the basis for more constructive meetings in the future. We won’t know until reliable accounts appear of what actually happened in their private meeting.

Obama is obviously trying to frame Syria within the broader context of U.S.-Russian relations in general. That is an intelligent approach.

Whether it is sufficient to halt the civil war in Syria is a separate question.

The Trenchant Observer

For links to other articles by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then use the “Search” Box or consult the information in the bottom right hand corner of the home page. The Articles on Syria page can also be found here. The Articles on Targeted Killings page can also be found here.

U.S. Covert Action in Syria?—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #40 (May 22)

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

The “Covert Commander in Chief” and America’s real policy toward Syria

Indeed, as pointed out in our previous article, statements from Obama and his administration at the G-8 summit at Camp David do appear clueless. Could “the smartest person in the room” really be so dumb?

Or could it be that he is simply being deliberately opaque, hiding something from view, and being just a little bit too clever to pull it off?

There have been reports in recent weeks of the U.S. facilitating the efforts of certain Gulf countries to arm the opposition in Syria. Obama may in fact be conducting key aspects of U.S. foreign policy by covert means, while presenting a different narrative to the country and to foreign leaders.


Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu, “US Helps Gulf States Arm Syrian Rebels: Report; The US is coordinating with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in arming Syrian rebels. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood also is involved,” Israel National News, May 16, 2012.

Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly, “Syrian rebels get influx of arms with gulf neighbors’ money, U.S. coordination, Washington Post, May 15, 2012.

These articles tell us what the administration wants us to know. They are based in large part on background information from government officials. Obama does tend to “spill the beans” on covert operations when he feels great pride in their achievements.

Could the U.S. be doing more to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition than coordinating the actions of the arms suppliers and the arms recipients? The CIA certainly has the experience. One need only recall the covert war against the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, to cite one example.

The implications of such a development, if it is happening, would be highly significant. The problem would come not from supplying the rebels, but from doing so covertly while presenting a different narrative to the world.

Singing the praises of the Security Council’s 6-point peace plan while at the same time assisting in supplying arms to the rebels would involve, at a fundamental level, betraying all those who take the United States at its word. This could have a significant impact in the future when the United States seeks to bolster or forge new alliances to support important foreign policy objectives.

The Commander in Chief as Covert Operator

As David Ignatius has pointed out, the president is drawn to the allure of covert action. His most trusted cabinet members are linked to the CIA. The Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, is the previous CIA Director. The current CIA director, David Petraeus, is the former commander in Iraq and was the commander in Afghanistan before moving to his present position.

See David Ignatius, “The covert commander in chief,” Washington Post, September 10, 2011.

Ignatius’ observes,

Obama is the commander in chief as covert operator. The flag-waving “mission accomplished” speeches of his predecessor aren’t Obama’s thing; even his public reaction to the death of bin Laden was relatively subdued. Watching Obama, the reticent, elusive man whose dual identity is chronicled in “Dreams From My Father,” you can’t help wondering if he has an affinity for the secret world. He is opaque, sometimes maddeningly so, in the way of an intelligence agent.

He concludes as follows:

Perhaps Obama’s comfort level with his intelligence role helps explain why he has done other parts of the job less well. He likes making decisions in private, where he has the undiluted authority of the commander in chief. He likes information, as raw and pertinent as possible, and he gets impatient listening to windy political debates. He likes action, especially when he doesn’t leave fingerprints (emphasis added).

What this president dislikes — and does poorly — is political bargaining. He’s as bad a dealmaker as, let’s say, George Smiley would be. If the rote political parts of his job sometimes seem uninteresting to him, maybe that’s because they seem trivial compared to the secret activities that he directs each morning (emphasis added). If only economic policy could be executed as coolly and cleanly as a Predator shot.

There is a seduction to the secret world, which for generations has charmed presidents and their advisers. It’s easier pulling the levers in the dark, playing the keys of what a CIA official once called the “mighty Wurlitzer” of covert action. Politics is a much messier process — out in the open, making deals with bullies and blowhards. But that’s the part of the job that Obama must learn to master if he wants another term.

On this anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, America is lucky to have a president who is adept at intelligence. But it needs, as well, a leader who can take the country out of the shadows and into the light.


This is all very confusing. If such covert action is underway, Obama’s greatest blind spot (common to virtually all spooks)–a fundamental failure to grasp the importance and impact of international law–could come back to haunt him in Syria.

A lot of governments could react with outrage to the U.S. conducting a covert policy to overthrow al-Assad–without justifying it under international law, on the one hand, while publicly supporting the anodyne 6-point peace plan adopted by the Security Council, on the other.

What is America’s covert policy toward the al-Assad regime? That is the question. And, of course, the answer is secret.

Whatever the current U.S. dysfunctional approach to Syria may be, we need to keep in clear view what the situation demands for the killing and other abuses to stop, and for the United States to emerge with its reputation and credibility intact.

What is required in Syria is military intervention to halt al-Assad, accompanied by a strong justification under international law.

To facilitate such action, the UNSMIS mandate should not be extended past its present 90-day term.  The observers currently in Syria should immediately be ordered to stand down, before they or their leaders or a significant number of them are killed by IEDs, RPGs, or other instruments of war. They are at great risk, as the recent attacks on them have demonstrated.

We should bear in mind the tragic fate of Sérgio Vieira de Mello (a potential future Secretary General) and some 20 other members of the U.N. Mission in Bagdad who were killed by bombs on August 19, 2003. The Mission was not adequately protected. The bombing not only had tragic consequences, but also led to a precipitate withdrawal of the United Nations from Iraq.

The Trenchant Observer

For links to other articles by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then consult the information in the bottom right hand corner of the home page. The Articles on Syria page can also be found here.

Obama clueless on Syria? G-8 endorses UN peace plan—Obama’s Debacle in Syria—Update #39 (May 21)

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Latest News Reports and Opinion

Clashes over the weekend following the killing of two Sunni clerics at a roadblock in Tripoli, under ambiguous circumstances, have raised again the real posibility of Lebanon being drawn into the civil conflict in Syria.


Neil MacFarquhar, “Syrian Unrest Prompts Gun Battles in Lebanon,” New York Times, May 21, 2012.

Alice Fordham, “Beirut tense after violent clashes linked to Syrian unrest,” The Washington Post, May 21, 2012.

Obama asserts G-8 in agreement on Syria

President Obama appeared in his public comments at the G-8 summit at Camp David this weekend to be seriously out of touch with reality on the ground in Syria. Reuters reports,

Camp David–President Barack Obama told G8 leaders meeting at Camp David that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave power, and pointed to Yemen as a model of how political transition could work there, the White House said on Saturday.

The Group of Eight leaders, in a statement summing up their discussions, urged all parties in Syria to adhere to their commitments under a joint U.N.-Arab League peace plan “including immediately ceasing all violence so as to enable a Syrian-led, inclusive political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system.”

The G8 statement said the leaders welcomed the deployment of the U.N. mission “and urge all parties, in particular the Syrian government, to fully cooperate with the mission. We strongly condemn recent terrorist attacks in Syria.”

Obama brought up Yemen as an example of a leader departing power peacefully and ushering in a democratic process, Rhodes said. “Our point was that we need to see political transition under way that brings real change to Syria,” he said.

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled the poor Gulf nation for 33 years and was unseated after an uprising last year that split the country’s armed forces into warring factions.

Saleh was granted immunity from prosecution over the killing of protesters as part of power transfer deal that eased him out of office….

–Jeff Mason, “U.S. tells G8 Syria’s Assad must go, cites Yemen as model, Rueters, May 21, 2012.

These statements sound like they came from a goup that has been asleep for the last six months, and just woke up.

As for the Yemeni model, one should bear in mind that it is now viewed by many as the number one state harboring al Qaeda. Just today, over 90 people were killed as the result of a massive bomb explosion. It should also be borne in mind that Saleh killed hundreds of demonstrators, not the thousands al-Assad has murdered. The number of opposition members who would support a Yemeni-style transition, which would leave countless war criminals in place with impunity, could probably be counted on the fingers of a single hand.

Russians Satisfied

The Russians were satisfied with the results of the G-8 summit.

Global leaders demonstrated consensus on all issues discussed at the G8 summit in Camp David. A statement to this effect was made by Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as he spoke to a Voice of Russia correspondent during the news conference after the summit.

“This summit became my fifth,” the Prime Minister said. “Compared to the previous ones, it was informative and problem-free. We held substantial discussions in which all participants readily took part, and there was little, if any, controversy between delegations, or separate leaders.”

The participants in the summit reached consensus on Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Members of the G8 were unanimous that the Syrian government and all parties involved in the conflict should immediately secure the implementation of all requirements of a peace plan proposed by UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The Russian delegation made it clear that the Declaration on Syria was fully in conformity with the position of Moscow (emphasis added).

–Garibov Konstantin, “G-8: unanimity in spite of problems – Medvedev,” The Voice of Russia (radio), May 21, 2012 (14:47 Moscow Time).

The Russians’ triumph on Syria at Camp David came on the heals of a veiled threat by Dimitri Medvedev, now Prime Minister, that armed intervention in Syria could lead to nuclear war.

TEHRAN – Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned on Thursday that military action against sovereign states could lead to a regional nuclear war, starkly voicing Moscow’s opposition to Western intervention ahead of a G8 summit at which Syria and Iran will be discussed, Reuters reported.

The 38th G8 summit is to be held in Camp David, Maryland, from May 18 to 19.

“Hasty military operations in foreign states usually bring radicals to power,” Medvedev, president for four years until Vladimir Putin’s inauguration on May 7, told a conference in St. Petersburg in remarks posted on the government’s website.

“At some point such actions which undermine state sovereignty may lead to a full-scale regional war, even, although I do not want to frighten anyone, with the use of nuclear weapons,” Medvedev said.

“Everyone should bear this in mind,” he added.

–“Medvedev warns against a nuclear war in Mideast,” Tehran Times, May 18, 2012 (May 19 print edition).


President Obama–at least in public–is talking about a Yemen-style transition in Syria, which presumably would include a guarantee that al-Assad and his henchmen would not be prosecuted for their crimes.

He believes a political transition is necessary in Syria, with al-Assad leaving power. He has said this before.

He and the G-8 have endorsed the Security Council’s 6-point peace plan and the UNSMIS observer mission.

Obama–in his public declarations–appears clueless as to how the al-Assad regime might be induced to permit such a transition, or for that matter to cease their crimes against humanity, war crimes and other grave violations of human rights (such as those detailed by the Committee Against Torture Report).

Clueless, or so it would appear.

The Trenchant Observer

For links to other articles on Afghanistan by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then type in “Afghanistan” in the search box.

Words and Deeds: Obama’s Defense of Democracy in Africa, 2011

Monday, August 1st, 2011

In comments on July 29 following meetings with President Yayi of Benin; President Conde of Guinea; President Issoufou of Niger; and President Ouattara of Ivory Coast, President Barack Obama stated the following:

“Despite the impressive work of all these gentlemen, I’ve said before and I think they all agree, Africa does not need strong men; Africa needs strong institutions. So we are working with them as partners to build effective judiciaries, strong civil societies, legislatures that are effective and inclusive, making sure that human rights are protected.”
–President Barack Obama, West Africa: Remarks By Obama After Meeting With Four African Presidents”, July 29, 2011, reprinted in, July 30, 2011.

As we have learned in other contexts, it is important to examine carefully not just what President Obama says but also, and most importantly, what he does. When he speaks of working with these and presumably other African leaders “to build effective judiciaries, strong civil societies, legislatures that are effective and inclusive, making sure that human rights are protected,” one must ask, “What are the specific programs, in which countries, and at what level of funding is he referring to?”

Again, how does this level of funding, per country, compare to the cost of deploying one American soldier to Afghanistan for one year?

Africans struggling to establish or strengthen democracy in their countries need not just words, but deeds. They need specific and meaningful programs that provide financial assistance for the strengthening of civil society organizations, including NGO’s working to ensure observance of fundamental human rights, and judicial reforms that not only improve the functioning of the courts but also expand access to justice among broader sections of the population.

See The Trenchant Observer, “Obama and Democracy in Africa, 2011,” July 16, 2011

Also worth noting in passing is the level of sophistication regarding Africa revealed at the White House, when the President refers to “Cote d’Ivoire” as if no one in the State Department knows the name of the country in English (Ivory Coast). If we are to start using the native languages for the names of different countries, we will have to refer to Egypt as Misr, Algeria as Jaza’ir, and Germany as Deutschland. It’s probably better to stick with English.

Or, to cite another example, when the Deputy National Security Adviser for Africa speaks of the president trying to find ways to speak directly to “the African people,” he is referring to the diverse peoples of the 54 countries of Africa as one people. It as if he were referring to people in Asia as “the Asian people” or the people in Latin America as “the Latin American people”. India, China and Brazil, to cite but a few examples, would not be pleased.

Details count, and are revealing.

The Trenchant Observer

Obama and Democracy in Africa, 2011

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Michelle Obama’s visit to Africa in June was, by most accounts, a successful goodwill tour by the First Lady and her family, serving to underline the importance of U.S.-African relations in general, and the personal interest of the First Family in African countries in particular.

See Andrew Malcolm (commentary), “Michelle Obama’s magical family tour of Africa,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2011

Certainly, the symbolism, particularly of her meeting with Nelson Mandela, was powerful, recalling as it did the triumph in two great countries of peaceful social revolutions based on the ideas and inspiration of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela himself.

Nonetheless, the visit was also a time to reflect on U.S.-African relations, evoking a number of criticisms of U.S. policy toward Africa under President Barack Obama.

An article by Krissah Thompson, published in the Washington Post on June 18, 2011, nicely captured the gulf between the attention given the Obamas as media celebrities when they travel to Africa, and the reality of U.S. policies toward the countries of the continent.

Typical of the criticisms cited by Thompson were the foilowing:

(T)he big challenges facing the continent — poverty, government corruption, threats of extremism, and AIDS — have not drawn the White House attention that Mwiza Munthali, public outreach director of TransAfrica Forum, had hoped for.

U.S. officials, said Munthali, “are not seeing Africa as a big priority. There has been some ambivalence.”

From another viewpoint, the following criticism was heard:

Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, a Ghanaian who runs a New York investment and research firm specializing in Africa, pointed to what he said was the irony in the shared disappointment. “We really said if a black man became president, it would change the world, but we are basically back at the same level we were before,” he said. “The bulk of the policy is still the legacy of the Clinton and Bush years. The Obama legacy toward Africa is still yet to be seen.”

–Krissah Thompson, “First lady’s African trip resurrects criticism of president on African issues,” Washington Post, June 18, 2011

A lame defense of U.S. policy towards Africa offered by White House officials only underlined the absence of really significant U.S. programs and initiatives in the region.

White House officials disagreed (with the criticisms), saying that the administration has laid out clear priorities in Africa: supporting democratic regimes, decreasing hunger and developing the $63 billion Global Health Initiative. That program seeks to integrate the Bush administration’s focus on AIDS with a wider approach to public health issues.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, noted that Obama met with the leaders of Nigeria and Gabon this month, and last year hosted a large group of handpicked young adults from the continent for a White House forum.

While Obama’s schedule has prevented him from traveling (to) the continent more, Rhodes said, the president delivered audio messages urging a peaceful democratic transition in Ivory Coast and an end to violence in Sudan, which recently divided into northern and southern jurisdictions with U.S. backing.

“We have looked for ways for him to continue to speak to the African people directly,” Rhodes said.

–Krissah Thompson, “First lady’s African trip resurrects criticism of president on African issues,” Washington Post, June 18, 2011

This defense was bolstered–perhaps–by an apology for Obama administation policies toward Africa written by two Brookings Institution Africanists and published on July 6.

See Mwangi S. Kimenyi and Nelipher Moyo, “Favorite or Prodigal Son? U.S. – Africa Policy under Obama,” Brookings (blog of the The Brookings Institution), July 6, 2011

Against this backdrop, one might ask, what is going on in terms of U.S. support of democratic forces and civil society in the region? How much money is it spending on such support?

Going forward, how much has the Obama administration asked for, and how much is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives willing to spend, on democracy and governance activities in Africa that support democratic forces and strengthen civil society?

To put these numbers in perspective, one might also ask how does this number, per country, compare to the cost of supporting one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year?

The fact is that demands for democracy and accountable government are not confined to the North African countries of “the Arab Spring.” They have also been heard in West Africa, from Ivory Coast to Liberia to Nigeria, while deep and significant movements toward democracy are also underway in the countries of Southern Africa, inspired in part by the example of South Africa. Elsewhere in the 54 countries of Africa, elections are being held and democratic governments are being formed and, everywhere, the struggle for democracy is underway.

What is the Obama administration doing, now, to support democratic forces and civil society in these African countries that are caught up in the struggle for democracy?

That is the question.

The Trenchant Observer

See also Words and Deeds: Obama’s Defense of Democracy in Africa, 2011, August 1, 2011